TEDxEdmonton Education: Discussing the evolution of learning in the City of Learners

Hundreds of Edmontonians will gather at the Winspear Centre on Saturday for a special TEDxEdmonton event focused on learning.

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, join us for a special edition of TEDxEdmonton around a conversation on how learning is evolving and impacting our schools, workplaces and industries. We’ll come together to kickstart a discussion on learning among students, educators, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, and community leaders. How do we disrupt the status quo and replace traditional approaches to learning? How do we leave the politics of education behind to focus on impact and innovation?

TEDxEdmonton Education is open to anyone interested in the topic, and will bring a number of intriguing speakers together for what should be a very inspiring day. You’ll hear from some local folks such as Ashlyn Bernier of the Graduate Students’ Association at the University of Alberta as well as some special guests from out-of-town like Stephanie Lo, Product Manager of TED’s Education initiative. The full line-up looks amazing!

tedxedmonton education

Education is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately, mainly from two perspectives: technology and cities. I’m unfortunately going to be out of town on Saturday, but I wanted to share a few thoughts in advance of the event.

Massively Open Online Courses

It’s shocking to me that we, more or less, teach the same way today as we have for centuries, despite incredible advances in technology. A teacher or professor in front of dozens of students in a classroom is typically the image that comes to mind when we talk about teaching and learning. Is that really the best we can do?

I was inspired recently by Daphne Koller’s TED Talk in which she discusses the emerging trend toward online education. She’s a co-founder of Coursera, which is one of the popular new platforms for MOOCs – massively open online courses. Coursera, edX, and other platforms are enabling a really interesting new way of learning. Instead of a few hundred students in a classroom, these online courses bring potentially hundreds of thousands of students together from all over the world. There’s still a professor and there are still lectures (delivered via video on-demand) and there are still readings, but there’s a lot that is different too. For starters, they’re free!

Here is Daphne’s talk:

I decided to take a course to experience first-hand what a MOOC is like. I signed up for the Introduction to Sustainability, taught by Jonathan Tomkin from the University of Illinois. There are lots of reasons that people might take this course – maybe they’re looking for academic credit, maybe they’re looking to advance their careers, or maybe like me they are just interested in the topic. I admit I haven’t been keeping up with the course as well as I should have, but already I have gotten a lot out of it. One of the most interesting things to me is the “How to Pass the Class” page, which states:

I recognize that this is no ordinary course. You may have different perspectives and different goals for this course than some of your peers or than I could have anticipated. Therefore, I want to empower you to customize this course to meet your needs. To this end, I have designed multiple “badges” you can earn through participation in this course.

Here’s a look at those badges:

coursera pass the course

This is great! If you want to take the “traditional” approach, you can simply do all the quizzes. But there are other options now. I like the idea of doing a project, because it provides an opportunity to really apply what you’ve learned. Most interesting of all are the forum badges – you can pass the class simply by interacting with your peers. I say simply but that’s probably not the right word because I think there’s an incredible amount of learning that can happen through that interaction. Some students have even formed in-the-flesh study groups in their cities!

I don’t know if MOOCs are the future of learning, but so far I like what I see.

City of Learners

As you may know, Edmonton has been declared a City of Learners. Through the Edmonton Learning Initiative, the City is trying to make lifelong learning a core value of our community. The initiative has adopted UNESCO’s four pillars of education:

  1. Leaning to know – understanding how we learn
  2. Learning to do – emphasis on the knowledge component of tasks
  3. Learning to live together – educate to avoid conflict or peacefully resolve it
  4. Learning to be – the complete development of the mind body, intelligence and sensitivity

These are quite broad of course, but so is learning!

Thinking about the education system more specifically, we can see from the 2012 Municipal Census that roughly 24% of Edmontonians were identified as students. Here’s the breakdown by level:

edmonton students

Edmonton has long been recognized as a leader in public education, and Edmonton Public Schools has been singled out as a model district. It’s encouraging to see achievement results that show the continued success of EPSB’s approach. I’m also a big fan of initiatives like City Hall School, which provides Grade 1-9 students with the opportunity to learn more about how the city works. It has been a big success, so perhaps we should consider expanding it to other levels? Fieldston’s City Semester in New York sounds like the kind of course I could only have dreamed about in high school.

The University of Alberta has a publicly stated goal to become one of the top 20 universities in the world by 2020, and while that sounds audacious it also seems attainable. Edmonton is fortunate to have a number of great post-secondary institutions, and we should not take that for granted. Here’s just one post on why universities matter so much:

Universities appear to function as an important social leveler. Nations with larger numbers of great universities have lower income inequality (with a negative correlation of -.475 between the two). And universities are part of the mix of institutions that lead to higher levels of happiness and well-being across societies.

There are all kinds of reasons that having strong educational institutions here in Edmonton will make our community stronger, but is education also something we could be exporting to other places? This post by Avnish on Alberta’s labour shortage proposes a really interesting idea:

In an era where governments are scaling back funding to post-secondary education, India presents itself as a lucrative opportunity. Alberta’s colleges and universities can make up funding shortfalls by expanding into India, with its large market, significant growth potential, and cheaper start-up and operating costs.

The argument is that we could tap into India’s labour pool with this approach.

One of the biggest reasons to think about education in relation to cities is the economy. Edmonton enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, hence the labour shortage referenced above. We need trained, skilled workers not only to fill the jobs we currently have available, but to create new ones too. We’re in a resource-based economy, but attracting and inventing new industries will be important for our long-term viability. It can be tempting to equate the “creative class” with education, but Richard Florida cautions against that:

The creative class is not just a proxy measure for college graduates. Roughly three-quarters of college grads in America work in creative class jobs, but four in ten members of the creative class—16.6 million workers—do not have college degrees.

They may never have been college students, but they’re absolutely learners.

There are just so many aspects of education in relation to the city that could be explored! I’ll leave you with part of Council’s declaration:

As a City of Learners, we celebrate the excellence our community has already achieved in learning, and we set our sights on even greater success for individuals, institutions, industry and our city as a whole. The challenges of a complex and competitive world demand nothing less than conceiving of learning as an organizing principle in our community.

TEDxEdmonton Education

I can’t wait to hear about all of the interesting ideas and conversations that come out of TEDxEdmonton Education this weekend! Tickets are $99 and that includes a full day pass plus lunch and snacks. The official after party is Edmonton’s fourth Timeraiser, a unique art auction where you bid in volunteer hours.